From Poor Things to American Fiction: where does this year’s Oscar race stand?

This time last fall, a robust, in-person film festival season showed an industry in advanced recovery, Covid not all the way gone but not having anywhere near the same devastating impact as before. Big names, big films and big crowds were all back en masse and while it was a difficult race to figure out, the larger picture was easier to see.

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But this summer, just as lineups were being figured out and finalised, dual Hollywood strikes caused new problem around the world as festival runners tried to reimagine a season of premieres without A-listers in attendance. Venice had originally been set to open with Luca Guadagnino’s tennis romance Challengers but with its lead Zendaya unable to act as spokesperson, it was pulled (along with its release date). It was a cause for wider concern, at a time of other release dates shifting, and while it didn’t presage the avalanche that many expected, it was the start of another unusual season.

The year began with a return to normality for Sundance, still operating as a digital hybrid edition but with a well-attended physical component dominating. There were major premieres and major sales and some awards buzz along with it. The most talked about title of the festival was Past Lives, Celine Song’s heart-piercing tale of childhood sweethearts all grown up, coming out of nowhere and continuing to pick up admirers up until its summer release. Song is a strong contender as both writer and director and Greta Lee could also make her way into the best actress race. A different kind of buzz came from Fair Play, Chloe Domont’s whip-smart thriller about a couple disintegrating over money, which was snapped up by Netflix (buying yet another crowd-pleaser and damning it to a premiere on smartphones). Dynamite performances from Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich might not break through given the film’s tone but one could see Domont’s electric script getting into the original screenplay race.

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Another audience hit bought by a streamer was Flora and Son, an old-fashioned Sundance winner starring an A-game Eve Hewson as a single mother learning to play the guitar and while it might be the kind of film that would have broken through in earlier years, it might now be resigned to an original song nod and perhaps Globe recognition for Hewson. Teyana Taylor also made an impression with a commanding turn in A Thousand and One but the film could be too small to break through. The biggest contender of the festival was Jonathan Majors who immediately became a best actor lock for his impactful performance in the grim bodybuilding drama Magazine Dreams. Searchlight paid handsomely for it, gifting it a prime December release, but a swirl of unpleasant allegations of abuse have since removed him from consideration (the film may well sit on the shelf forever).

Fast forward to the summer and this year’s Cannes lineup offered some more potentials a year after the festival saw three premieres make it into the best picture race. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Killers of the Flower Moon was warmly received by almost all (it boasts a lofty 97% rating, with the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw giving it a five-star rave) and seems like a shoo-in for a number of categories, including Lily Gladstone who could become the first Native American best actress nominee ever (even if, like many of his much-nominated films, it may leave empty-handed). There was also buzz around the Palme d’Or winner, the talky legal thriller Anatomy of a Fall, which catapulted Sandra Hüller into the best actress race as an author accused of killing her husband. The film’s broad appeal (it’s a French film that’s mostly in English) could also see it entering the best picture race. Hüller also starred in The Zone of Interest, the much-anticipated return of Jonathan Glazer, his first full-length film since 2013’s Under the Skin, sparking Oscar buzz with some of the festival’s finest reviews. It’s a dark, difficult film about a Nazi family living next to Auschwitz but it could see him score his first best director nod at the very least. There could be some Academy attention for Wes Anderson’s starry Asteroid City, but reviews weren’t all as positive as the initial write-ups and it’s been a few years since he broke through. Todd Haynes’s May December could be too comedic but could also see love for its stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, both Oscar favourites and both scoring their strongest notices for years.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

The summer box office isn’t traditionally a home for major awards contenders but July saw two emerge at once in the shape of Barbenheimer, a cultural and financial phenomenon that may well turn into something of an Oscar sensation as well. Greta Gerwig’s Mattel satire-lite Barbie is the less obvious pick on paper but is likely to have a strong showing in many tech categories, as well as more love for Gerwig as both writer and director and Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, especially, also sneaking into their respective acting races. The more traditionally Oscar-suited Oppenheimer could well become the year’s most nominated film with Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt possibly receiving their first nods, Robert Downey Jr his third and Christopher Nolan his first ever win. On a smaller scale, Amazon’s pre-summer Nike drama Air could squeeze into some categories with its Damon and Affleck re-pairing and traditional “like they used to” film-making.

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The season ended with the start of Venice, typically the most contender-stacked festival of them all and while the aforementioned Challengers wobble set many on edge, the lineup ended up being as bountiful as ever. While it came in with middling buzz (filmed two years prior, originally set for a concerning early September release date, prefaced by an off-putting trailer), Yorgos Lanthimos’s offbeat period tale Poor Things became the talk of the town, winning the Golden Lion and vaulting its star Emma Stone into the best actress race, the star tipped to be richly rewarded for her all-guns-blazing performance. The film will probably pick up numerous nods, including Mark Ruffalo’s fourth best supporting actor nomination. Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro weathered early pushback over prosthetics to secure him and his co-star Carey Mulligan spots in their respective categories, with the film alongside. While Michael Mann’s Ferrari had some detractors and might not see a big showing overall, its star Adam Driver should pick up his third nomination. David Fincher’s The Killer was well received but likely not an awards play, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla is more Oscar-friendly but perhaps too enigmatic to register, Richard Linklater’s Hit Man was a big hit (and was picked up by Netflix for $20m) but is more for audiences than Academy voters and Ava DuVernay’s Origin, while praised for its emotional impact, seems too uneven to count.

Andrew Scott in All of Us Strangers
Andrew Scott in All of Us Strangers. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

Swiftly to Telluride, with one of the Colorado-based festival’s biggest lineups for years, boosted perhaps by its traditional lack of reliance on celebrity presence. Alexander Payne bounced back after his middling sci-fi satire Downsizing with The Holdovers, scoring some of his best reviews yet for his 70s-set comedy drama. The film, made as if it were from the actual decade, is the sort of crowd-pleaser that the Academy will be eager to reward, with Paul Giamatti potentially squeezing into a competitive best actor category and Da’Vine Joy Randolph potentially winning for best supporting actress. Netflix brought two by-the-book biopics that brought buzz for the actors leading them, firstly Rustin, about the Black queer activist Rustin Bayard, which garnered praise for its star Colman Domingo, and Nyad, about the queer swimmer Diana Nyad, which should push both its lead Annette Bening and her co-star Jodie Foster into the race (both films though are likely to be performance titles only). Andrew Haigh’s metaphysical drama All of Us Strangers was met with raves and could see Andrew Scott receive his first nomination for playing a gay writer juggling a new romance and the ghostly reappearance of his parents, who died when he was 12. An emotional response from audiences could also edge the film into other categories. Jeff Nichols’s 60s-set drama The Bikeriders also picked up buzz for its star Jodie Comer while a few spotty reviews for Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman, Saltburn, suggests another film more suited for a commercial play over an awards one.

Soon after saw this year’s Toronto film festival, hit the most by the lack of star presence, the biggest and most commercial of the pack suffering from muted premieres and a more muted lineup. There was nothing to rival last year’s premiere of The Fabelmans but a couple of less obviously splashy titles still managed to pick up buzz. One of the most talked about was the literary satire American Fiction, entering the festival with a question mark, an adaptation of Percival Everett’s Erasure from the journalist turned TV writer Cord Jefferson. Its lead Jeffrey Wright scored some career-best reviews, a best actor nominee in the running, and the film ended the festival with the audience award, every winner of which has scored either a best picture nomination or a win since 2011. Audiences also responded to Anthony Hopkins’s moving turn in the fact-based drama One Life, about a man saving Jewish children on the brink of the second world war, with the premiere reducing most to tears. The actor seems like a surefire contender but the film is still seeking US distribution. It’s a tough year for the best actor category but Jamie Foxx also drew praise for his role as a showboating lawyer in the crowd-pleasing courtroom drama The Burial. Elsewhere, the Emily Blunt-led opioid caper Pain Hustlers was a flop (sinking with an atrocious 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, her worst-reviewed film of all time), Kate Winslet’s performance in the Lee Miller biopic Lee drew acclaim but the film had some lukewarm reactions and Taika Waititi failed to deliver on his Jojo Rabbit triumph (which won the audience award in 2019) with middling reviews for his football comedy Next Goal Wins.

While the festivals have given us enough to see a race start to firm up, the year still offers some unseen sights that could shake things up. This year’s New York film festival, kicking off next week, is light on world premieres but it will give audiences and critics their first chance to see the four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan’s sci-fi-tinged drama Foe, the trailer for which suggests it might not be Oscar-suited. Over on the other coast, the AFI festival will also see a genre film headed up by Academy favourites, Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali starring in Leave the World Behind. Later in the year, the big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical The Color Purple hits screens as a possible contender, with Steven Spielberg’s original take scoring 11 nominations back in 1985. This iteration could bring noms for Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P Henson and Danielle Brooks. Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated Napoleon, starring the Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix and Oscar nominee Vanessa Kirby, is also not to be counted out, even if his last attempt, the underseen historical drama The Last Duel, didn’t make the grade.

Seven safe-ish nominee bets

Da’Vine Joy Randolph – best supporting actress, The Holdovers

Cord Jefferson – best adapted screenplay, American Fiction

Bradley Cooper – best actor, Maestro

Emma Stone – best actress, Poor Things

Colman Domingo – best actor, Rustin

Greta Gerwig – best director, Barbie